The Economist columnist Bagehot has neatly summarised the danger in the stance taken by the CofE on welfare reform:
The economy may be about to fall off a cliff. That poses a huge test for the Church of England and its claims to be a source of national strength. If the church cannot offer a message more spiky and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail that test.
The danger is profound and not in mere political terms. The Church's social vision cannot be a baptised form of either social democracy or neo-liberalism. Rather, as Milbank states:
The Christian confidence in its ethical tradition is peculiarly strong because we claim that, in the life of Christ, we already have a definition of a perfect social reality.
The Church's critique of any prevailing economic and social order flows from the Word made flesh, not Keynes or Friedman. We are called to be much more than chaplains to a social democratic - or neo-liberal - order.
So where does this leave the CofE bishops and welfare reform? While their intervention in the debate does run considerable risks, it also has ensured that the welfare reform debate has not been conduced in purely fiscal terms or, as often happened in the 1980s, with considerable hostility to welfare reciepents.
In their open letter of last November on welfare reform, the CofE bishops in the House of Lords outlined their key concerns with the proposed welfare reform package. Their focus was on the most vulnerable children in our society:
The introduction of a cap on benefits, as suggested in the Welfare Reform Bill, could push some of the most vulnerable children in the country into severe poverty. While 70,000 adults are likely to be affected by the cap, the Children's Society has found that it is going to cut support for an estimated 210,000 children, leaving as many as 80,000 homeless. The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.
It is unlikely that without the involvement of the CofE bishops any campaign against the benefit cap would have attracted the publicity it has - or achieved a victory in the House of Lords' vote. But has the intervention of the bishops passed Bagehot's "spiky and distinctive" test? That is at least debatable. It does, after all, appear to be a very conventional social democratic stance. Alternatively, the bishops ensured that the welfare reform debate acknowledged the realities faced by the most vulnerable in our society.
The real test of "spiky and different", however, is what the bishops say next. The Church's vision for these children, their families and communities must surely be greater, more oriented to authentic human flourishing and more explicitly shaped by faith in the Incarnation of the Word than an additional £83 per week in welfare payments.